As a Christian, when you experience a painful providence like an illness or a rebellious child or a broken marriage or a financial hardship or persecution, do you ever wonder if God is punishing you for some sin you committed?
If you do, here is some very good news from the Letter to the Hebrews.
The original readers of this letter had been experiencing persecution and affliction for some time. They were tired, discouraged, and confused—why was God allowing such hardships? And some were doubting,
So the writer of the letter needed to clear up a few things. First, he reminded them that Jesus was the fulfillment, not the contradiction, of all that God had pointed to in the first covenant. Next, he exhorted them to hold fast their confidence in Jesus. And then he issued a few sober warnings so his readers could examine themselves to see if their faith was real.
But one thing he wanted to make very clear was that the difficulty and pain they were experiencing was not God’s punishment for their sins or weak faith. That’s why he made it beautifully clear in chapters 7-10 that Jesus’ sacrifice for sin was once for all believers for all time (10:14). No sacrifice of any kind for sin was ever needed again (10:18). He followed that up in chapter 11 with example after example of how the life of faith has always been difficult for saints.
And then he wrote the tender encouragement and exhortation of chapter 12 where he quoted Proverbs 3:11-12:
My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.
“It is for discipline that you endure. God is treating you as sons,” he said. In other words, he did not want these saints to interpret their painful experiences as God’s angry punishment for their sins. That angry punishment was completely spent on Jesus—once for all—on the cross. Instead, this was the message they were to understand from their hardships: God loves you! He has fatherly affection for you. He cares deeply for you. He is taking great pains so that you will share his holiness (12:10) because he wants you to be as happy as possible and enjoy the peaceful fruit of righteousness (12:11).
This is why as a father, whenever I discipline my children, I always try to make it clear to them that I am not paying them back for their sins. So I don’t use the term “punishment.” I don’t want them to misunderstand and think I am giving them what they deserve. That’s God’s job. And if they trust in Jesus, all their punishment was taken care of on the cross. Instead, I always use the terms “discipline” or “correction” and explain that I love them and my intention, even though the discipline is painful, is to correct and train them. I want them to know that their father loves them, cares for them deeply, and is taking great pains to point them toward the way of joy.
And as a Christian, that’s God’s intention in all the difficulty, affliction, and suffering he ordains for you. It is crucial that you remember that everything God feels toward you as a Christian is gracious. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). He’s not punishing you for sin. You are his child. He is your Father. He is no longer your prosecutor. He now deals with you as a child, not a defendant.
In August of 1997, John Piper preached a sermon on this text called “The Painful Discipline of Our Heavenly Father.” I remember it vividly because of how profoundly the Lord met me through it. I was enduring a very difficult season of the Lord’s discipline at the time. The night before John preached this sermon, I was asked to substitute for the person assigned to read the scripture just before John preached the next morning, because he had fallen ill. And as I read through the text that night, Hebrews 12:3-11, light broke in for me and I understood in a whole new way what God was doing in me. So this sermon has a very precious place in my heart.
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When God disciplines us it is a precious form of his favor. It’s what a loving father does. That’s why, I believe, he does not discipline us every time we commit a sin, and why, when he does discipline us, we usually can’t connect it with any one particular sin. He is not giving us what we deserve because he “canceled the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands... nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14). Instead, he is training us in righteousness. Because he loves us so very much.
Rejoicing with you in God’s fatherly love for us,